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Closer Look

Despite an off game by Heupel, the Sooners prevailed

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Posted: Sunday December 03, 2000 1:39 AM
Updated: Sunday December 03, 2000 10:51 AM

  Josh Heupel Josh Heupel may have ruined his Heisman Trophy hopes, but more importantly, the Sooners are headed to the Orange Bowl. Brian Bahr/Allsport

By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The jersey still said 14, the name on the back was Heupel. But if this was indeed Josh Heupel playing for Oklahoma on Saturday night, it wasn't the same guy we saw in October.

This more closely resembled the Heupel whose armor had started to crack a couple weeks prior, who now, playing for the Big 12 championship against Kansas State, was throwing three interceptions, numerous wobbly balls and, it would have appeared, the Big 12 championship and Heisman Trophy out the window.

Fortunately for Heupel, he has teammates.

"It was a team effort today," said linebacker Torrance Marshall, who himself picked off a pass and made big play after big play to stifle K-State's offense. "My play was pretty good, but without 10 other guys that I'm playing with, it wouldn't be possible."

Actually, it was more than 10.

Among them were Josh Norman, the receiver who also plays special teams and whose second quarter punt block allowed Heupel to move only 17 yards for the tying touchdown.

Or Marshall, the omnipresent linebacker who in the first half alone three times made the third-down play to force Kansas State punts.

Or Quentin Griffin, the pint-sized tailback whose 22-yard run off a rare option pitch set up Heupel's untouched 7-yard dash for the lead.

And tight end Trent Smith, only the team's seventh-leading receiver during the season who was suddenly grabbing a game-high eight balls for 96 yards.

While Heupel had proved his greatness on numerous occasions over the season, Saturday it was someone else's turn to shine: Oklahoma.

"It goes to show we have a good football team," said offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, who responded on the fly to his star QB's early struggles by simply mixing things up. Like splitting a tight end wide who had caught only 21 passes all season.

"They're so versatile with Trent Smith in there," an awestruck Phil Bennett, K-State defensive coordinator, said afterward. "We probably could have done some more things to cover him more, but when they've got three good receivers in Norman, Woolfolk and Savage, you've just got to pick your poison."

And for all the concern over how Kansas State would defend Heupel, it was easy to forget that Oklahoma has a pretty good defense of its own. If the Wildcats' Jonathan Beasley ever forgets the job they did on him Saturday, it won't be soon.

With a swarming defensive front causing Beasley to constantly throw on the run All-Big 12 wideout Quincy Morgan was limited to 57 yards -- 17 on a late, desperate TD -- and Beasley finished a miserable 12-of-28 for 106 yards.

The credit was due all around, from Marshall to counterpart Rocky Calmus, safety J.T. Thatcher and cornerback Michael Thompson.

"All the press and all the spotlight goes to the offense, but that's just the way it is in football," said Calmus. "I've always been told, offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. That kind of happened tonight."

Now, having won all 12 games they've played and locked up their spot in the Orange Bowl, the Sooners can look forward to a month answering this question: How do you stop Florida State?

Come Jan. 3, no one will be mistaking Andre Woolfolk for Snoop Minnis or Corey Heinecke for Jamal Reynolds.

But it's also not like the Sooners win as individuals. Their top individual was off his game Saturday, and they won. How does one explain?

"Hey, the Sooner magic is back," said Griffin. "I can't complain."

While Kansas State is left pondering an enigma, it probably hardly seems magical. Twice they've faced these Sooners and twice they've lost.

The source of their downfall the first time was fairly obvious: 29-of-37 -- Heupel's line. Figure, you cut Heupel's efficiency down to semi-normal levels and you're set. So they do, and still they lose.

"If you hold a team to around 300 yards [OU had 319], especially a team like that, you should have a chance to win," said Bennett. "There's really not much I would do different."

By the way, as if the Sooners aren't scary enough without him, the Heupel of old did eventually show up at Arrowhead. He was the one you saw running for one touchdown, throwing for two others -- including a pretty throw to Woolfolk following Griffin's big run -- and finishing with a respectable 24-of-44 line for 220 yards.

Heisman numbers? Probably not. Most likely, Chris Weinke will be the one celebrating in New York next Saturday.

But on this Saturday, the Aberdeen, South Dakota, transplant was celebrating a surely more satisfying achievement for a coach's son. Clutching an orange high in the sky, Heupel approached the OU contingent in the stands afterward, one that included his smiling dad, and unleashed a smile as wide as has been seen in public this year.

Heupel gets a Big 12 ring. Oklahoma, the team, won the championship.


 
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